An eruption of air pollution


If the past 18 months haven’t already been enough to handle, late last month, La Palma, Spain experienced its first volcanic eruption in over 50 years. The eruption of the Cumbre Vieja volcano, which began in late September, has so far seen the forced evacuation of over 6,000 residents and the destruction of 1,300 homes and buildings.  

The eruption itself isn’t particularly surprising, at any one time there are around 40 active volcanoes and for billions of years, geological processes like volcanic eruptions have controlled the atmosphere and the state of our climate. However, what is different about this specific eruption is its close proximity to the general population of La Palma.  

When we see pictures of the Cumbre Vieja eruption or other eruptions of a similar magnitude, we see ash-covered skies and rivers of lava flooding the land.   

However, according to Sævar Helgi Bragason, an expert in air quality and climate for the Icelandic Environment Agency: ‘Generally speaking, the lava itself is not really an issue, it’s the gas pollution emitted from the volcano that is by far the biggest safety concern for everyone in the area.’  


Health impacts 

Volcanoes emit a cocktail of chemicals, but one pollutant that is a major cause for concern is sulphur dioxide (SO2). Like with other more commonly known pollutants, SO2 is associated with a wide range of health impacts, from respiratory issues such as asthma and bronchitis to cardiovascular and lung disease.   

Dr Anja Schmidt, an expert in the impact that volcanic eruptions have on air quality at the University of Cambridge analysed the air pollution impact of the 2014 Bárðarbunga eruption in Iceland and found that the volcano emitted 12,000 tonnes of SO2 per day, this is three times more than all European industries combined. 

In another study led by Dr Schmidt in collaboration with the University of Iceland, the researchers found that at the time of the eruption, incidents of respiratory disease rose by a quarter and the incidence of asthma medication dispensing increased by a fifth.  

‘This is the first study to convincingly show that there is a direct link between respiratory health and the presence of volcanic pollution,’ Dr Schmidt tells Air Quality News.  

The Cumbre Vieja eruption in La Palma is still ongoing and the complete air pollution picture is yet to be fully understood, however recent satellite images published by the European Space Agency revealed that SO2 emissions from the eruption were moving over the Atlantic Ocean towards Central America. 

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~sAir Quality News, 19 November 2021